Previews are to begin later this year as the financially strapped Studio Arena Theatre mounts its most important production in decades: A plan to survive.
Kathleen Gaffney, the theater's artistic director for the past 21 months and CEO since November, is betting that a leaner operation, shorter season, greater innovation and more glamour will lead the imperiled theater company back to financial viability and greater creative heights.
A lot is riding on this extended run: The survival of the city's largest and most established theater could depend on whether she succeeds.
"We have taken the actions and we have the will, and I am confident of the recipe to thrive because existing is not enough," Gaffney said.
"We probably should have been reinvented a number of years ago."
Changes have already brought considerable pain to 14 employees -- some there as long as 18 years -- who were laid off last week and given 10 minutes to leave the building.
To develop a new plan for the future, Studio Arena hired ArtsMarket, a Bozeman, Mont.-based consulting firm that specializes in arts groups. Theater management also consulted with JC Jones & Associates, a Rochester-based financial management company with a history of turning around distressed companies.
Louise Stevens, ArtsMarket's founder and president, praised Studio Arena for its willingness to tackle its financial problems head-on.
"There are not many organizations to my knowledge that are willing or able to go through this kind of reorganization, under a tremendous amount of scrutiny from their lenders and their donors in a very short time frame, and do it well. And I think Studio Arena has," Stevens said.
Some of the major, mostly cost-cutting moves revealed to The Buffalo News by Gaffney include:
*A reduced season. The number of shows will go from seven to six, reducing Studio Arena's theater season from 32 weeks to as low as 25 weeks.
*A reduced number of previews. "We added about five to six extra previews in recent years. You only need to have extra previews if you're having a world premiere," Gaffney said. "We also want to change the availability not so that [tickets] will cost more, but that they will be worth more."
*The same artistic team. Keeping the lighting, costume and set directors and other behind-the-scenes talent throughout the season will result in fewer outside directors hired.
*Special events not on the subscription series. These could include rare, one- or two-day performances by out-of-towners and others.
*More marquee names. Invitations have been sent to ex-Buffalonians Christine Baranski, Jesse L. Martin, Wendie Malick and John Schuck to be in a show for the 2007-2008 season, or to perform in a special event.
*Forging new partnerships. "I want this theater to be a resource for smaller theater companies like Road Less Traveled [Productions], and more experimental ones," Gaffney said. "They could mount something wonderful, refine it, and then move it like Off-Off-Broadway [shows] move to Broadway."
Gaffney reaches back to the late executive director Neil Du Brock for inspiration. Du Brock, who left Studio Arena nearly 30 years ago, was known for taking big chances and bringing in stars of stage and screen.
"One has to look at the days of Neil to see the kind of place that a [League of Resident Theatres member] needs to be. He brought glamour to Studio Arena," Gaffney said. "Neil was like an impresario, and that's what this role needs. It needs an impresario personality."
The 610-seat theater has presented world premieres in recent years, from Anthony Clarvoe's adaptation of Lauren Belfer's acclaimed "City of Light" in 2001 and Richard Maltby Jr. and William Meade's "The Ring of Fire" in 2005, which went straight to Broadway, to "The 4th Wise Man" by Gaffney and Tom Fontana that just closed.
Gaffney said she is committed to staging more. "A really good operating [League of Regional Theatres] theater creates new product. That's one thing Studio Arena used to do," Gaffney said.
"The 4th Wise Man" was a more conceptual piece than Studio Arena's traditional fare, relying on the use of fabric, shadow play and puppets mixed with live action. It also employed 13 people on stage -- 10 of them Buffalo State College students who were allowed to perform in the union house because they didn't have speaking parts or require a change of clothes.
Gaffney said audiences can expect more conceptual presentations and larger cast shows.
"I want our subscription holders to see a wide range of product. They are going to see different, but I think better," Gaffney said.
That could challenge the expectations of some of Studio Arena's long-standing subscribers. Neal Radice, artistic director of the Alleyway Theatre, said the theater's audience is one that knows what it wants.
"It's a very for-profit driven audience in particular, and Studio Arena has done everything to foster that. If you are a theatergoer in this town and you want to see wonderful scenery and lights and costumes, it's where you go," Radice said.
Gaffney also wants to appeal to a younger audience. "Those are the people who are going to lead us into the theater that it is going to become."
Gaffney discussed the impact of new technologies on culture, and said she's considering ideas to incorporate things like YouTube and live performance.
"We're looking at all of that," she said. "I don't intend for the theater to be a museum."
One thing Gaffney must contend with is the angry reception the abrupt dismissal of Studio Arena employees has engendered. Actress Mary Loftus called it "The Studio Arena Massacre."
"We know that Studio is in trouble, but what we abhor is that those who were dismissed were given 10 minutes to clean out their desks and get out," said Loftus. "The feelings are very much against Studio for conducting [the layoffs] that way."
Gaffney praised those laid off, but said she was left with no other choice in the unlikely event someone decided to strike out at the theater with an act of sabotage.
"At the time, when layoffs happen, everybody must leave immediately. It's standard business procedure, as cold as that may seem," Gaffney said.
Their jobs and workloads are being absorbed by some of the 35 current staff members who have been asked to double their workload, Gaffney said.
The theater's CEO said she is confident the theater is moving forward with a plan that can staunch the theater's sea of red and eventually put the theater in the black. She has the respect and confidence of many of her peers, such as Randall Kramer, artistic director of MusicalFare Theatre. He said Studio Arena was "absolutely on the right path" with Gaffney.
"Most theater companies are taking little steps. We're taking a big one. We are going to cure [our problems] right now," Gaffney said.